Kraftweek 8 – Consolation nights in Cardiff & Glasgow

By now, the word is out, there are limited ‘returns’ tickets on the door of the Tate and, if you’re prepared to stand in the cold for an hour or two and queue, you have a good chance of scoring one for the shows left. That’s all well and good if you live in London or can afford a trip on the off chance that you might be lucky. But it’s a poke in the eye for all who can’t and spent the best part of their day on the phone trying to get tickets last December. With this in mind two nights have sprung up so that fans can take matters into their own hands and dictate as if they were the group themselves – ‘tonight Matthew, I’m going to be in… Kraftwerk’.

The first one takes place on March 1st in Cardiff:

Eight different live ensembles play the songs of Kraftwerk to ease the disappointment of being unable to get tickets to see them in London.

We couldn’t get tickets either. The touts and scalpers got there first. You could buy a ticket from some disgraceful profiteer, but here’s a more appealing way to enjoy some Kraftwerk.

Live bands of Cardiff musicians, both unknown and well-established, will celebrate Kraftwerk with a night to remember at Chapter Arts Centre.

Bring your own robots.”

The Rules / Application form: here

Tickets: £7/£5 concessions, now on sale at Chapter.

More information: contact us by email or telephone Cardiff 2031 1904.

Twitter: @kraftwerknight

and here’s another that’s sprung up in Glasgow two days later after seeing the Cardiff idea and deciding to do their own version:

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Kraftweek 6 – ‘Computer World’ for Clash Magazine

The piece below was written for Clash Magazine who are running articles during the London concerts Kraftwerk are playing at the Tate Modern. I was among several other artists asked to choose my favourite album of theirs and write about it.

Kraftwerk
appeared in my life at the beginning of 1982* when ‘The Model’ scored a freak No.1 in the UK during the post-Xmas lull. In the middle of your Gary Numans, Human Leagues and other assorted synth pop of the day were a new band, from Germany this time. Magazines articles featured the four piece with tales of building their own instruments, mannequins on stage and turning calculators into synths. The local record shop also suddenly confronted my 11 year old self with a variety of different back catalogue LPs from this ‘new’ group, re-released to cash in on the sudden interest.

With only limited paper round funds I had to choose which one to buy first and the fluorescent yellow of ‘Computer World’ won the day (on cassette no less, with an equally acid yellow tape inside the case). It couldn’t have been a better choice because whilst ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ give it a run for its money it’s a scientific fact that there are no duff tracks on CW. It’s an album which starts strong with the urgent intro to ‘Computer World’ and, incredibly, retains that strength and momentum to the dying notes of ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’.

‘Pocket Calculator’ is one of my favourite songs they’ve ever written with the oft-sampled bubbling arpeggios of ‘Home Computer’ coming a close second (alongside its sudden jump-cut to a faster tempo midway). Even the sudden return of ‘Computer World 2′ out of ‘Numbers’ isn’t a cop out, rather it reinforces the overall concept and softens the impact of the melody-less countathon before it. My brother and I used to listen to the eerie blizzard of whispered voices that end side 1 and try to discern what they were saying. To this day I swear there’s a little phrase in there that repeats, “don’t say it so quick”, every so often.

That the group dispensed with minimal verse/chorus/verse/choruses quickly before taking off on an extended ‘jam’, adding layers of melody in strict eight bar measures, was something that was new to me. Having only ‘got’ pop music about two years before, I was unused to songs extending much over the three minute mark – remember this is 1982, the 12″ was still a new format and the idea of extended remixes still largely an underground club thing (and I was only 11!). Here were tracks of 5, 6 and 7 minutes in length, some blending into each other, all sounding like they were played with the precision of a factory car assembly line rather than human beings.

The sounds were gentle too, aside from the stuttering crush of the beat to ‘Numbers’ and the subtle menace of the melody in ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’, the album was most definitely not Rock in any way. Depeche Mode‘s debut, ‘Speak & Spell’ – released the same year as ‘Computer World’ and named after the children’s toy that Kraftwerk utilised on the title track, was about the nearest thing I’d heard to their softly spoken style. Later in ’82 The Human League would release their largely vocal-less League Unlimited Orchestra remix album, ‘Love & Dancing’, and by then I was completely hooked on this kind of synth pop or new wave as it became known. If I had a time machine the first destination on the dial would be one of their gigs supporting this album back in ’81. The classic line up of Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang, performing their masterpiece, even coming to the front of the stage for ‘Pocket Calculator’, the closest they would ever come to their fans before withdrawing into their own computer world.

*I was actually aware of ‘Autobahn’ in the mid 70’s via a compilation tape my dad made from the Top 40 countdown each Sunday, the track scared me whenever it appeared but I wouldn’t put two and two together until later.

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Kraftweek 5 – by Andy Dog

I found this on the web recently – a Record Mirror cover from 1978 featuring Kraftwerk by Andy Johnson. Some may know Andy by his other pen name: Andy Dog, he’s also the brother of Matt Johnson (The The).

He had this to say about it: “Blimey, what a find! Yes that is one of mine. For your information it was originally commissioned by (the now acknowledged literary expert and renowned author) Tim Lott and was completed with a certain technical difficulty (because the gouache paint kept bubbling instead of laying flat) in my tiny bedroom (shared with Matt) above the pub in Loughton where we lived at the time. I think I got paid about £95 for it. When it came out I was so pleased I walked into Hipgnosis on Denmark Street and showed it to Peter Christopherson and said “how about giving me a job?” He was v. polite but declined….”

Kraftweek 4 – Ralf & Florian, human after all

My favourite member of the group used to be Karl with his impish good looks and funky drumbeats, but over time I’ve come to appreciate Florian Schneider because of his mysteriousness and obvious sense of humour. Both he and Ralf Hutter have come across as cold and humourless in recent years because of the minimal interviews and stilted language used, all this stuff about ‘musical workers’ and the machines operating themselves. It wasn’t always so…
Check out this performance of ‘Pocket Calculator’ from Italian show Discoring in 1981. Aside from the Italian language version of the song (I think) check the little humorous interactions between Ralf and Karl on the left at 2.24 and 4.40. Best of all are the closing seconds as the presenter says goodbye, watch Florian on the right.

Did you see that? He made the rabbit ears sign behind the presenter’s head! You can see him getting ready too, he knows he going to do it and lines himself up for the moment.

Another performance of the same song in New York yields more playful antics from Schneider too. Along with letting members of the audience press buttons on the calculator he mugs to camera, miming electronic letters ‘a’ and ‘o’ and pretends to be electrified when pressing the calculator.


In Rio de Janeiro back in 1998 Florian endured this quick non-interview in which he’s clearly enjoying giving away as little as possible in order for it to be over with.

And who could forget the closing shot of their Tomorrows World performance of ‘Autobahn’?

But the prize goes to Ralf Hutter for his casual lyrical amendment to the last verse of ‘The Model’ at an Edinburgh soundcheck in 1991.

Click >>>The Model – Edinburgh soundcheck ’91

Posted in Film, Kraftwerk. | 5 Comments » |

Kraftweek 3 – Kraftwerk Kover Kollection 8

Volume 8 already (with enough saved for vol. 9 too)! This hour long mix has a bit of an angle over previous ones as I saved a lot of jazz, acoustic and piano versions for this and left out most of the electronic side.

Save for some timely skits that comment on the ticketing fiascos surrounding recent gigs, most of the music here is more organic than synthetic but shows how easily adaptable the songs are across genres. A Bollywood version ofMan Machine’, ‘The Model’ played on church bells, sung by a choir and covered by comedian Adrian Edmondson are just some of the delights in this edition.

I probably say this every time but this is one of my favourite mixes, it was a bugger to put together but some of the versions are just incredible. ‘Neon Lights’ played on a music box, the jazz versions of ‘Spacelab’, ‘Man Machine’ and ‘The Telephone Call’ by Mensch Maschine and the insane piano version of ‘Electric Café’. Whilst adapting the cover art I did a number of designs and thought it would be fun to see what ‘retro’ and ‘updated’ versions would be like so here’s a Kover cover that conforms to ‘Der Katalog’ too.

Kraftweek 2.5 – ‘Autobahn’ at the Tate Modern review

We arrive at the Tate Modern early, around 8pm, having rushed around the Light Show exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and then up the river in case the Tate’s ineptitude with the ticketing of this event is transposed to the entry system too. We needn’t have bothered, it barely looks like anything is happening, no lines down the block (not that there is a ‘block’ as such), no touts shuffling in the cold muttering, ‘anyone want Kraftwerk tickets?, tickets for Kraftwerk?’. None of this, we just walk in, get our wristbands and follow the smell of chips down to the bar to grab a drink. As more people start to arrive the pre-gig buzz starts, we spot ‘celebrities’ in the crowd, not X-Factor or film star celebs but legends of electronica past (Daniel Miller, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys from OMD), the designer Peter Saville and journalist Paul Morley. One of the first people I recognise is my own accountant, who seems as shocked to see me there as I am him, and who then reveals that he saw them back in ’75 on the original ‘Autobahn’ tour at the Fairfield Halls (!) I knew he was the accountant for me but could never put my finger on why until now.

People are starting to file downstairs into the turbine hall so we follow, being given black cushions if we wish along the way and collecting our special Autobahn emblazoned 3D specs and info sheet on entry. The bottom end of the hall has been draped nearly to the ceiling, speakers run the length of both walls and the stage shows the four pixelated figures as a low electronic murmur emits all around us. People sit down, slightly bemused by the whole cushion thing and hall being a concert venue rather than the exhibition space they’re used to. A family sits behind us, father, mother and two sons, the youngest just ten years old, I ask him if he likes Kraftwerk and he hasn’t even heard any of their music yet but he loves art. The murmuring and the lighting dies, the robotic voice that introduced the gigs I saw in Dusseldorf three weeks back announces the band and we’re off into, errr… ‘The Robots’?

Hang on, we’re at ‘Autobahn’ aren’t we? Did anyone tell them this? Have they loaded the wrong set list? No, they haven’t, it’s fine, it serves as a perfect intro (no actual robots are on stage though) and then we’re into ‘Autobahn’ proper. It’s difficult to tell if they played it in full, time becomes elastic at a Kraftwerk gig, some songs that should be 5, 10 or 20 minutes zip by in what seems like a fraction of that time, others sometimes drag on too long (I’m thinking of the later material here). At the Man Machine show I thought they played ‘Autobahn’ for maybe seven or eight minutes, the next night at Computer World, it seemed to go over the 10 minute mark, the ‘Autobahn’ show definitely must have extended on that although I wasn’t exactly checking my watch to time any of it. The bass was phenomenal at times, vibrating through our bodies but never distorting, each sound crystal clear and all acoustic echo or reverb of the hall completely absent. One of the best 3D moments is during a short ‘interlude’ in the track where it breaks down into a short ‘radio’ section, the melody equalized as if playing through a transistor, and musical notes start to project from the car dashboard on screen. One of the staves floated, seemingly, out over our heads and drew the first gasps from the crowd as the projections did their work of distracting our attention from the four motionless figures concentrating on their ‘werk stations’.

‘Out of the Autobahn…’ and we’re on to side 2, something I never thought I’d ever hear live and was intrigued to know how they’d pull off. ‘Kometenmelodie 1′ was stompy, eerie and oppressive, visually represented by a slow moving comet moving across a star field and over in a matter of a minute or two. ‘Kometenmelodie 2′, the opposite, it’s soaring, mourning melody the nearest other point of reference to the direction the group would take on their next album, ‘Radio-Activity’. ‘Mitternacht’, a similarly slow, brooding accomplice to ‘Kometenmelodie 1′ in a lot of ways, was illustrated by a road with houses either side (?) before an artificial sunrise greeted a short but sweet ‘Morganspaziergang’. This was interesting because the absence of Florian Schneider can most be felt on this track, his flute – initially an integral part of the band sound but dispensed with forever on record after this point – is replaced by a light keyboard replication, presumably played by Ralf who seemed to be in charge of any melody lines being played throughout the gig. The artificial recreation of a morning walk in the country side, complete with electronic chirping birds and insects, mellow flute and light piano is the most out of place piece here but it’s still a joy to hear even if the image of four unsmiling, body-suited men presented in front of you is completely out of whack with the sounds you hear.

The album we’ve chosen to hear out of the way,  it’s time to get to the meat of the event, the rest of the catalogue. Having seen this twice before there are no surprises although the selection is different and some visuals seem to have been improved or changed here and there. We go from ‘Radio-Activity’ to a crushing, rolling, metallic ‘Trans Europe Express’ (complete with the ‘meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie‘ line) but no ‘Showroom Dummies’ unfortunately. ‘The Man Machine’ gets a work out with only ‘Metropolis’ missing, ‘The Model’ predictably receiving the biggest cheer and the 3D in ‘Spacelab’ garnering more cheers. ‘Computer World’ is heavily plundered (but no ‘Pocket Calculator’ alas) with a great version of ‘Home Computer’ that really hasn’t aged at all in over 30 years. They ended the track quite suddenly and I was amazed to see Ralf and Henning Schmitz turn to one another, laughing, sharing a moment as if to say, ‘well you cocked that one up didn’t you?’



On to ‘Tour De France’ then, the original version sequenced into the newer one from ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ and ‘Vitamin’ providing more amazing 3D visuals as bubbles and pills cascade out of the screen. After this things take a slight dip with ‘Expo 2000/ Planet of Visions’ a low point, a track derivative of much of the less-loved ‘Electric Café’ album and the first sign that the band were falling back to old ideas, even referencing how Techno had played its part in the past with its, ‘Detroit we’re so Electro’ line. Visually as well we’re into vector graphics and 8-bit computer type here and it looks dated in a way that the other album graphics don’t, not retro enough to have come back round a second time yet for a generation largely still pining for the degraded, warm feel of an Instagram image.

The designer in me can’t let go of some of the visual anomalies on screen too, jagged anti-aliasing around pictures, lined video footage that needs de-interlacing and low resolution jpeg artifacts in certain parts. Some of these are the bare basics of video and print work and make it look like they’ve used a work experience bod to execute some of the footage. It’s a minor, personal gripe but with the sound so pristine it’s a shame some of the vision is lacking. Back to ‘Boing, Boom, Tschak’ though and things start to pick up, the vector graphics are still there but we get the animated heads, created by Rebecca Allen which, at least, have a fuzzy VHS quality to them that’s just the right side of retro to feel appealing. I’m wondering if younger generations who discovered Kraftwerk in the 90’s will find their post-80’s graphics more appealing years down the line?

They finish with ‘Musique Non Stop’ and the beats are just incredible, the groove in that track is testament to the fact that a machine can funk. Play it to any narrow-minded jerk who gives you the tired, ‘it’s not as good as a real drummer is it?’, line and see them eat their words. This last track was one of the highlights for me because, as in the previous gigs, the players, one by one, take ‘a solo’ before they leave the stage. Each has 16 bars to play with the sound and get a little bit of the spotlight briefly before striding to the side, taking a bow and disappearing behind the curtain. Ralf is, of course, the last to leave and after his keyboard solo he gives a brief, ‘goodnight, auf wiedersehen, see you tomorrow’, and is gone, leaving the words ‘music non-stop’ reverberating around the room as the lights come up.

There is no encore, nor is there any call for one, there is little else to play and people know that, we were sated in our thirst to hear the Man Machine and this is really what the band has become now. Did we see ‘Kraftwerk’? Kind of but not really, we saw four men playing the music of the band, one of whom happened to have been an original member when most of these songs were written. But we didn’t really see ‘Kraftwerk’ as in you’re not seeing ‘The Beatles’ when you go and see McCartney doing ‘Hey Jude’. We saw what Kraftwerk wanted us to see, the sleek, airbrushed, we’re-ignoring-the-first-three-albums-because-they-don’t-fit-with-the-concept-Kraftwerk and that’s the difference between this mutated form of the group or seeing a tribute band perform these songs. Talking to Andy McCluskey from OMD before the gig brought up an interesting concept, he thought that even after Ralf retires or dies, the band will continue to tour, either with other human players or as their Robot counterparts. It may be that they invest in the same technology that brought ‘hologram Tupac to Coachella last year but the band and their legacy will live on, why shouldn’t they tour? I think he may be right and if any band is going to do it it’ll be Kraftwerk, the men have laid the foundations, the machines can do all the werk from now on.


Posted in Gigs, Kraftwerk. | 6 Comments » |

Kraftweek 2 – Influences in dance music and beyond

Last month I was asked to write my thoughts about how Kraftwerk had influenced modern day DJ and Dance Music Culture by Jude Rogers for a piece for The Observer. I got a bit carried away and here’s an extended version of the full piece I submitted:
Everyone knows Derrick May‘s proclamation that Techno was the fusion of Kraftwerk and George Clinton meeting in an elevator’ but the band had a stake in the Hip Hop community many years before. As soon as Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker took the beat from ‘Numbers’ and the melody from ‘Trans Europe Express’ to form the classic ‘Planet Rock’, Kraftwerk became part of the foundation of Hip Hop. Even before that, Grandmaster Flash would play ‘Trans Europe Express’ in it’s entirety in his infamous DJ sets, using its side-long length as one of his ‘bathroom break’ records.

No matter that the new wave and post punk groups had already claimed a stake with their synth and indie pop, the group became one of the building blocks of the Electro sounds coming out of New York, even more gleefully championed by the west coast who liked their tempos faster. That ‘Tour De France’ soundtracked the best scene in the film ‘Breakin’ shows how much their uptempo beats appealed to the crews back when breakdancing was as strong an element of the culture as the DJ and MC.
[youtube width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njs3RmdwGUE[/youtube]

After this the band would be sampled endlessly, if not as obviously as ‘Planet Rock’. The group sued Bambaataa’s label, Tommy Boy, for thousands of dollars and Techno soon arrived, claiming its stake in the band. The 80’s generation that were inspired by Hip Hop and Techno to start DJing and beat making grew up to be the producers and ‘superstar DJs’ of today.
[youtube width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DE5iDd4iHA [/youtube]
Check the intro to ‘Leave Home’ by The Chemical Brothers for their clever appropriation of ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ from the ‘Radio-Activity’ LP or Jay-Z‘s backing track on ‘Sunshine’ for his take on ‘Man Machine‘. LCD Soundsystem‘s Disco Infiltrator’ owes a big debt to ‘Home Computer’ and even Coldplay got in on the act by asking for permission to interpolate the melody of ‘Computer Love’ into ‘Talk’. In more contemporary dance scenes – hear dubstep producer 6Blocc’s cheeky reinterpretation of ‘Numbers/Computer World 2′ disguised under the title, ‘Digits’.
[youtube width=”250″ height=”250″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-0WeRH-7ac[/youtube]

Across the pond Juke/Footstep producers like DJ Clent and Traxman have also been shoe-horning Kraftwerk samples into some of their songs, guess which track they sampled on ‘The Robot’?” Kraftwerk have been part of the lineage of dance music culture since the late 70’s, approaching it without them is like taking the ‘Apache’ break out of Hip Hop and the 808 drum machine out of Techno.

But it goes even further than that, the band lurk in some of the most unlikely corners outside of the music industry too, ingrained in people’s lives as much as any band like The Beatles or The Stones. Soda Jerk – a duo from Australia who make video cut ups and installations – have an on going project called ‘Astro Black’ which features the quartet amongst many heroes of black music. In their own words. “Astro Black is a multi-channel video cycle informed by cultural theories of Afrofuturism. Taking the cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra as a point of departure, this ongoing speculative history seeks to draw out the nexus of science fiction and social politics in Black Atlantic culture.” One excerpt called ‘We Are The Robots’ features Kraftwerk playing sequences from their own music in a jam session with the mothership from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ which responds with fragments of tracks that have sampled the group (!)

 

Astro Black Ep 0: We Are The Robots (Excerpt), 2010 from Soda_Jerk on Vimeo.

I’m frequently asked how I find all the various cover version in my Kover Kollection mixes (vol. 8 debuts tomorrow) but the truth is, once you start looking, they are everywhere, just not always in plain site. A quick web search for a title + ‘cover version’ is much like turning over a stone in a rock pool, teeming with life you can’t immediately see. Another example, I received a magazine by my friend Sarah Coleman just before Xmas, she had a feature on the back page about her favourite design classic – the 45 adaptor. Which record was the dink pushed into?

 

Kraftweek 1 – ‘Autobahn’ live at the Tate Modern

I’ll be posting a week of entries dedicated to Kraftwerk from today (Kraftweek? – sorry) highlighting ephemera, esoterica and oddities to do with the band. Friday the 8th will see Solid Steel premiere the Kraftwerk Kover Kollection vol. 8 – this time heavily focusing on jazz, piano and acoustic cover versions.

Tonight the group kick off eight nights at the Tate Modern in London with ‘Autobahn’, their biggest chart hit after ‘The Model’. I’ll be going alongside fellow fan Osymyso who graciously got me a ticket after the Great Tate Ticket Meltdown of last year. I, like many others, spent half a day fruitlessly trying and failing to get any joy from their phone lines.

The original album was released in 1974 but back in 1985 – after ’82’s No.1 success of ‘The Model’ and ’83’s ‘Tour De France’ single but the non-appearance of the aborted ‘Techno Pop’ album – ‘Autobahn’ was reissued and ‘digitally re-mixed’ with amended artwork. The back cover photo of the old line up in the back seat of their car (itself visually altered at the time to reflect the changing line up) was replaced entirely with a black and white live shot of the band from the mid seventies.

Aside from a new catalogue no. (Auto 1) there was virtually no other info on the sleeve, even the track titles were relegated to the labels on the disc despite a colour inner sleeve bearing the blue Autobahn logo inside on both sides. To my ears there is no difference in the audio at all, ‘digitally remixed’ probably being used for ‘remastered’ in this instance. The advert to the right was taken from a copy of Record Mirror from June 15th ’85.


Here’s the fantastic appearance they made on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ around the time of the original release, check Florian at the end.

Posted in Gigs, Kraftwerk. | 2 Comments » |

Kraftweek

Tomorrow I’ll be starting a week of posts relating to a certain German band who will begin eight nights at the Tate Modern museum in London. Each day will feature something, hopefully that most of you won’t have seen or heard before, connected to the band just for the fun of it and because they’re bringing Der Katalog to the UK. Friday’s Solid Steel will feature the eighth volume in my Kraftwerk Kover Kollection mix series alongside an excellent set from Israel’s Group Modular.

Posted in Kraftwerk. | 2 Comments » |